Another one of my mentors is gone – I got the news that Boris Beizer passed away on October 7, 2018. I’d like to pause to share some of my recollections of Boris. If you knew him, I would love to hear your stories, too.
I think my first introduction to him was reading his book Software Testing Techniques. It was published before the software testing specialist role was common. I was working as a software test engineer, and I was a bit confused by the book’s point of view. I discovered that Boris and most of the other authors who wrote about software testing at the time were participating in the comp.software.testing Usenet newsgroup. This was likely in 1994, give or take a year. I was amazed that I could interact with the people who “wrote the book” on software testing. So I joined in, and I learned a lot more than I would have just from their books. Somewhere along the way, Boris explained that Software Testing Techniques was written for programmers, and suddenly it made a lot more sense to me. When I wrote the frequently asked questions list for the newsgroup, I used quite a bit of material from Boris to flesh it out.
In 1995, I set up the swtest-discuss email list that Mark Wiley and I conceived to discuss how to test operating systems with a few colleagues we knew. The list grew to 500 subscribers and the topic area greatly expanded. Some people liked how we could enforce a better signal to noise ratio than what we had on comp.software.testing. Boris participated on the list. But some people felt that his tone was too abrasive. I’ve forgotten the details of the social dynamics that were in play so long ago. Some people moved on to other forums where Boris wasn’t invited. I realize I can’t make everyone happy. And Boris clearly didn’t care to.
My participation on Usenet got the attention of Dr. Edward Miller, the conference chair for the Quality Week conference. He invited me to join the conference’s advisory board that chose the papers that would be included. I was flabbergasted. I was still practically a kid. But Dr. Miller was certain he wanted me on the board. So I accepted. I joined a distinguished group of industry experts and academics, including Boris Beizer, who was a prominent industry consultant and also still acted like an academic, having gotten one of the first ever PhD’s in computer science.
I traveled to the Quality Week conference in San Francisco, which was in the Sheraton Palace. I remember going to the dinner that the advisory board was invited to during the conference each year as a thank-you for our efforts. I wasn’t sure how I was going to get to the restaurant as I stood on the curb in front of the hotel with Boris and other board members, many of them smartly dressed, and me in my business casual. Then Boris hailed a limo. What? I didn’t know then that you could hail a limo, but that’s how several of us got to the restaurant. Edward and Boris and the rest accepted me as one their own, despite my inexperience and casual mode of dress.
Some of the specific things I remember from Boris include the Pesticide Paradox. which taught us that test suites lose their effectiveness over time. His software bug taxonomy inspired many discussions, and I even helped him research the origin of the word “bug.” He taught me that if I can model any aspect of a program using a graph, I can use that graph to guide my testing. And not long ago, at a talk I was giving, someone in the audience reminded me of the fabulous poem “The Running of Three-Oh-Three.” Boris published it at the very beginning of Software Testing Techniques, “with apologies to Robert W. Service.” It remains the best poem about software testing that I’ve seen. I’ve only now bothered to figure out the link to Robert Service; it seems that Boris’ inspiration was Service’s poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” published in 1907.
Boris must have been in high demand. He told me at one point that he sold his services in 1-week blocks for US$20,000. Any shorter time than that wasn’t worth his attention. He told me later that he had enough “f-you money” to be very selective about which clients he took. He is credited with changing the industry in ways I don’t even understand, because the transformation was well underway when I joined the scene. With his brash nature, he made enemies along the way. But I didn’t like to choose sides. I have learned both from Boris and many of the people who steered clear of him.
I am especially proud of the inscription that Boris wrote in my copy of his book Black Box Testing:
However, after I read the book, I had to report to him that I really didn’t like it. He explained that the publisher had assigned him an inexperienced editor who made a wreck of the book. I sure learned a lesson about dealing with publishers.
I found out at some point that Boris had written two fiction books under the pseudonym Ethan I. Shedley. They were both out of print, but I found a used copy of The Medusa Conspiracy. I started reading the book but didn’t finish it. I probably don’t have the generational context to be able to appreciate it.
Ever since Boris retired some time ago, I’ve wondered if we would ever hear about him again. Last February, I felt an urge to check on him. I no longer had a working email address for him (he seemed to change his email account regularly), but his phone number was easy to find in his Usenet signature. Dialing a phone is a quaint thing nowadays, but I was determined. Sure enough, someone picked up the phone, and when she asked who was calling, I hastily had to summarize who Boris was to me. She summoned him to the phone and we had a nice talk. I mentioned that I’m writing a biography, and as soon as it came out of my mouth, I felt that awkward sensation that I’ve felt a few times before, that I was talking to someone who may merit a biography of their own, but yet they hadn’t made the cut. Boris mentioned his last book, “Software Quality Reflections.” I still didn’t have a copy (it may have been an e-book), and I think the only way to get one is to get it straight from him. I sent him an email to his new email address to request it as he asked me to do, but I never got an answer.
For more about Dr. Beizer, see the interview in the May 13, 1985 issue of Computerworld. This was before he started his consulting practice, and there’s a great picture of him. You’ll also find his resume here. Other remembrances have been posted by Jerry Durant, Simon Mills, Bob Binder, and Rex Black. Here is his obituary.
We’ve come full circle, with Boris ushering in the age of the testing specialist, and now as he makes his exit, testing efforts are shifting right back to the developers he originally addressed. I think his goals are well-stated in the dedication that he wrote in Software Testing Techniques. I’ll let him have the last word–
Dedicated to several unfortunate, very bad software projects for which I was privileged to act as a consultant (albeit briefly). They provided lessons on the difficulties this book is intended to circumvent and led to the realization that this book is needed. Their failure could have been averted—requiescat in pace.